Tuesday, February 10, 2009
The Politicization of "Transhumanism"
The movie is a cautionary tale about the progressive fantasy of a eugenically correct world—the road to which is paved by the abortion of Down babies, research into human cloning, and “transhumanist” dreams of fabricating a “post-human species.” Biotechnology is a force for good, but without adherence to the ideal of universal human equality, it opens the door to the soft tyranny of Gattaca and, ultimately, the dystopian nightmare of Brave New World - Wesley J. Smith, Discovery Institute
I’d like to know how a “eugenically correct world” is an inherently “progressive” fantasy. Aren’t there just as many, if not more, critics of biotechnology on the left? Where did the word “frankenfood” come from? Apparently it was coined by Paul Lewis, an English professor at Boston College, in a NY Times op-ed. Cultural conservatives often like to position themselves as the sole keepers of God’s (or in possible Wiccan Hippie terms, Mother Earth’s) kingdom. Clearly this isn't the case.
Eugenics, which is pretty much what we are talking about here, isn’t exactly a popular scientific pursuit these days, although to listen to Mr. Smith, you might think otherwise. I suspect an ulterior motive, which is that contemplation of biology is to be made taboo, through the examples of worst-case scenarios, ala Gattaca.
If this was the 1920’s, you could make a case for “transhumanism” as a progressive idea. Nowadays, the movement is more closely associated with radical libertarianism. I think Ronald Bailey (science editor at Reason and author of Global Warming and other Eco-myths) might balk at the idea of being called “progressive.” Is the NRO just wary of spooking its libertarian readers, thus substituting that eternal whipping boy, the “progressive,” in place of the “libertarian”?
Though there are so-called “democratic” transhumanists, there are NO transhumanists taken seriously by mainstream, middlebrow culture. Ask anyone you know what they think about cloning, human or otherwise. Most likely they are weirded out by the subject; does this make them “conservative”? If so, the term is meaningless. You might as well call me conservative if I choose not to have my best friend perform brain surgery on me. It makes about as much sense.
People often confuse mere discussion of technological advances as an advocacy of said advances. Certainly there are going to be evangelical transhumanists, just as there are evangelicals for Intelligent Design (hello, Discovery Institute).
French author Michel Houellebecq caused quite a stir with his novel Les Particules élémentaires (The Elementary Particles) by raising the subject of transhumanism as a desirable, if not inevitable, result of technological evolution. The novel seems to reject many 20th century progressive ideals, including “free love” and the dismissal of God and organized religion. The gist of the novel is thus: since the hippies failed going about it the “natural” way, why not try the un-natural way? Naturally, some critics saw this as reactionary, this categorical rejection of the hippie ideal.
The point here is that human control over biology (cloning, et al) is inherently anarchic. Thus it cannot be hemmed in by “progressive” and “conservative” fences. It puts into the hands of (hopefully capable) scientists what cultural conservatives (including a lot of hippies) would like to leave primarily in the hands of God/nature. Is the development of vaccines part of this sinister cabal?
All of this could potentially be cleared up if we knew what, in fact, Smith means by “progressive.” Is it the contemporary meaning, embodied in the leftist populism of Michael Moore and Ralph Nader? Or does progressive mean something more literal, like an actual progression or evolution(!) of homo sapiens?
Speaking of noted progressive Ralph Nader, guess who co-wrote a letter with Wesley J. Smith in 2005, pleading for the life of Terri Schiavo?
P.S. Do all conservatives adhere to the ideal of “universal human equality”? Read VDARE.com and you might think differently.
UPDATE: I came across a piece written for the New York Times about a month ago by another self-described libertarian, Steven Pinker. He writes:
Many of the dystopian fears raised by personal genomics are simply out of touch with the complex and probabilistic nature of genes. Forget about the hyperparents who want to implant math genes in their unborn children, the “Gattaca” corporations that scan people’s DNA to assign them to castes, the employers or suitors who hack into your genome to find out what kind of worker or spouse you’d make. Let them try; they’d be wasting their time.